It’s a good time to be performing the great Martha Graham’s choreographic masterworks. But according to Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, that wasn’t always the case.
“There were a few decades in there where they were just old,” says Eilber. “But they are now old enough and they’ve proven themselves enough to be called classics.”
If you are one of the few who hears “classics” and expects the company to appear on stage with horns and a breast plate when they finally return to Houston after 15 years, well, you’ll be disappointed. With The EVE Project, Eilber says they are honoring Graham’s legacy of innovation through a theme that highlights Graham’s “revolutionary approach to female characters on stage.”
“It used to be flowers and swans and princesses,” says Eilber. “[But] she created complex and flawed and powerful women on stage, which no one had really done before.”
In the 1940s, Graham borrowed women from Greek mythology and the Bible, “women who the audience would have knowledge of,” says Eilber, “and she transformed them to ask the audience to empathize with them.” Though Eilber says it wasn’t part of some conscious feminist effort, “she was a woman, and she had things to say and she said them.”
Eilber began looking for ways to both accentuate Graham’s radical approach to women characters and work with today’s top female choreographers about five or six years ago. But as time passed and The EVE Project, a two-year initiative celebrating female empowerment and the 19th Amendment, coalesced, something else became clear.
“We realized we had been overtaken by the national and international conversation that was going on about gender and sexual politics,” says Eilber. “We had no idea it was going to be so topical, but it certainly serves this atmosphere, the awareness that’s happening right now.”
That said, Eilber stresses that the company is “not trying to proselytize or lecture to the audience, we’re just opening the door to this art that Martha created.” Eilber adds that the themes of The EVE Project developed into a very rangy program that includes two works from Graham and two new works. And yes, wanting to put new works on a program next to the classics created a bit of a dilemma: Who do you put on a program with Martha Graham?
“I needed artists who had experience and were recognized as doing something extraordinary so that they would not be intimidated by interacting with Martha’s ballets, because that’s what a program does, and would still have enough understanding of their own power and their own voice to move forward and create something that is quite separate from Martha’s things,” says Eilber.
The first half of the program opens with Graham’s 1948 “ode to love,” Diversion of Angels, paired with Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith’s Deo, a new work which premiered back in April.
Eilber says the three color-coded couples of Diversion of Angels likely represent the same woman at different points in her life, with the couple in yellow representing a mercurial young love, the couple in red a more passionate love, and the couple in white a spiritual, enduring love. Deo, on the other hand, tells a mother and daughter story based on a myth of Demeter and Persephone.
“This work is abstract, but very much calls up the idea of mothers and daughters, and grief and loss, and it’s much more on the emotional narrative side of the scale, as is Diversion of Angels. So, we see Martha’s ode to love, ode to emotion followed by a very contemporary work that is also an ode to emotion, if you will, although quite different emotional terrain.”
While Eilber describes Doyle and Smith’s work as “much more of a gutsy, emotional style of dance,” she says Pam Tanowitz, whose Untitled (Souvenir) opens the program after intermission, has a style much closer to Graham’s modernism.
“She’s very much into design,” says Eilber. “She likes to work out puzzles, and you’ll see this work is dance phrases that fit together, that react to each other.”
Untitled (Souvenir) premiered in March, so Eilber says the design interplay audiences will see on stage is done is a “very contemporary, hot-off-the-press way” and fits nicely with the program’s closer, Chronicle, an example of Graham’s extreme modernism where the emotional message is too delivered through the design.
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Chronicle, which premiered in 1936, is “a forceful anti-war message delivered by a cast of all women” which, Eilber reminds, was created at a time “when women had very little opportunity to have a political voice.”
“I think powerful is used too much, [but] it’s just such a powerful statement,” says Eilber. “It’s a rallying cry against oppression. It’s uplifting. Yes, the first couple of sections are a reminder of war, a reminder of the devastation of war, but they are in service to the final section which says to the audience if you take action you can make change.”
Eilber adds that a truly great repertoire like Graham’s is “not a tutorial. It’s not obviously directing you to think in one way or another. I think the beauty of Martha’s greatest works is that she invited you in and your reaction, the way you’re moved or what you take away from it, is up to you.”
Martha Graham Dance Company’s The EVE Project is scheduled for 8 p.m. October 18 at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For more information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $39 to $69.